Tomas Espedal's ELSKEN (2019)

(Tomas Espedal, actually writing 2017)


In a more accessible passage in the Critique of Judgement, Kant aims to unravel our predisposition for teleological thinking through using the example of a tree's growth. Normally, it makes little sense to imagine a suspension or reversal of cause and effect, unless we think of the way in which a tree simultaneously depends on both its leaves and its roots. Just as the roots require leaves to process sunlight to grow, so leaves require roots to suck up water and nutrients to produce more leaves. This understanding of living organisms as organic wholes will be termed ‘reciprocal causation’ and Kant will parallel this idea with his notion of reflective judgements, where an artwork is valued insofar as it is composed of parts which are mutually reinforcing, and, like man, should be treated as an end-in-itself.

'Elsken': it would be easy to write this off as another Espedal travelogue, little different from those that precede it. On the surface, Espedal’s novels seem like a continuation of the Beats with a Nordic inflection. All the clichés are present: long leisurely hikes through small towns and wilderness, women picked up on the road who come and go, days and weeks spent drinking in lowly hometown bodegas, the invocation of a bold and incautious life, here, grappling with the existential complexities of love and death. Yet there’s a mixture of tenderness and steely-eyed honesty to Espedal’s works which makes him rank alongside the critical thinkers in the Kantian tradition. He never stretches our patience (as can occur in the late style of Henry Miller) and carefully avoids any lapse into metaphysical dogma or new age mysticism (which cannot always be said of the later beats), and this despite the fact that 'Elsken' directly addresses those big questions concerning who we are, what we should do, where we will go, and what we can hope. While Espedal’s literary output uniformly derives from real experience in the manner of a roman à clef, he grounds his answers to those questions through controlled experiment. What would you choose to do if you were only allowed one more year of life? How would you experience things you normally take for granted? Such is the premise for ‘Elsken’, and it begins as it ends, on the day he set aside to die.

Early on in Kafka’s diaries, there’s a humorously anti-climactic eureka moment where he discovers the secret of writing fiction. The secret? Change everything you write from first person to third. Espedal follows suit, only adding a deft little twist on the insight through writing about an ‘I’ as if it were the name of a character, ‘Jeg’. This simple trick is used consistently throughout allowing him to utilize his authoritative experiences with ease while giving him the distance to invent. Yet, while we know Espedal must edit and curate his material to maintain dramatic tension – and Espedal is a master at this – it is difficult to believe that he entirely ‘fabricates’ situations, as this would seem too much like a petty trick. We hold him to higher standards, and the dignity of the novel relies on its proximity to actual life. ‘Elsken’ offers the reader a genuine escape route from that ‘self-incurred tutelage’ that Kant warns us of, if not exactly a method for universal enlightenment.

Perhaps it is the re-arrangement of chronological events that gives the novel its lightness. If the main narrative arc charts the year he took to ‘die’, then the narrator repeatedly throws us into the past to dredge up significant life events, many of which will be familiar to Espedal fans. There are the years of drunken lassitude before and after his wife’s death, there's the period in which his wife died, and there's the rape case about which more will be said. The exploration of his emotional ambivalence towards his wife’s death is a staple in Espedal’s writing, a fact which mitigates against accusations of callousness towards the mother of his children. Sometimes these deliberate flashback sequences jar with the otherwise smooth narrative integrity, and this might be due to their unresolved nature in his life as a whole.

What is the difference between Espedal’s life and his literature? The ideal writer’s dens which feature prominently on the covers of his books and find their apotheosis in his recently published family photo-album, ‘My Private Life’, serve as shrines to the man of letters, with their perfectly ordered book piles, artsy photographs and souvenir postcards, and nice wooden furniture all neatly composed into a small quiet Scandinavian space. Espedal’s veneration for his inherited family home legitimates bourgeois affections for ‘good craftsmanship’ and ‘nice things’. About all this he is unrepentant. He doesn’t feign shame or indifference. Similarly, Espedal’s adventures always involve the eminently possible. A summer hike across the south of France. A week or two of ardent drinking in a local tavern. A period of bed-bound desuetude followed by a trigger event leading to recovery. Which of these experiences are unfamiliar to the serious reader? Even the initial idea that ‘Elsken’ was meant to be a response to Seneca’s letters ‘On Life's Brevity’ (which it clearly still is, indirectly), fits in with the interests of that serious reader who is up on their classics.

But Espedal chose to appeal to a wider extra-literary audience. The pivotal events in Espedal’s narrative could happen to anyone. Whether it’s the death of a spouse ending an unhappy marriage, or the blessing of a new child late in life, Espedal shows how, through commitment, even average lives might bifurcate to the road less travelled. After all, one can choose to honour the past and not love again, or, one can choose to commit to new love. Just as one could choose a certain day to end one’s life, or embrace parenthood in old age after a lucky fling. Somehow, ‘Elsken’ vacillates between these polarities without ever seeming insincere. Part of the immense charm of Espedal’s work is that he can leave us believing that our lives are not so different from Espedal’s, and consequently, that we too might be able to celebrate our lives with the self-same power. After all, what does he do that is so different from us?

Following Roland Barthes, we might say that Espedal writes at a ‘degree zero’, with what seems like a cool crisp transparence which belies the deliberate precision of his orchestration. Arguably, his craftsmanship is best seen in the way his work shapes the lives of others. At times, characters seem to slide into allegorical woodcut flatness. A next-door neighbour, ‘Rank’, symbolises what might happen if one stays alone rooted to dull bourgeois comforts, whereas a friend, ‘Karol’, has more forceful macabre expression as a corpse flopping free from a tipped coffin than he did in his sealed Proustian vault of an apartment, where he'd devoted himself to a biography of Francis of Assisi that he could never finish. At his best, Espedal uses his experiences to explore difficult problems with a refreshing frankness. When contemplating the prospect of having a child at fifty-five and considering whether it might be selfish given his plan to end his life within a year, he speculates on how it might not be so terrible for a child to grow up without a father after all. In fact, could it be a liberation? Compare this to the rare notes of sentimentality which infect the elderly Cormac McCarthy’s love-letter to his young son in ‘The Road’, and Espedal’s bold thoughtfulness is clear. What a future child might think of this is for them to determine.

It would be a dereliction of duty to finish up this review without reflection on the perennial moral complexity of writers exploiting real life experience as material. The Kantian idea of ‘reciprocal causation’ in the tree also has its darker side. Where modern biology shows how one tree can pretty straightforwardly ‘cause’ another through seed dispersal, Kant’s fundamentally romantic view of nature implies that the individual parts of a tree, such as a branch, can be said to strain and struggle against the other parts in its competition for resources; the tree as a whole being a product of dynamic tension, one which can devolve into a form of reciprocal cannibalism once this balance is upset. Contemporary autofiction, of which Espedal’s work, along with Knausgaard’s ‘Min Kamp’ and Pablo Llambías’s recent ‘Natteskær’ are prominent examples, foregrounds the ethical challenge of artworks which derive their sustenance from the sacrifice of the author’s own splendid isolation. These works are defined by the harm their works risk causing others in the service of what might be a higher truth. Of course, the names and some details can be changed, and the writers can invoke poetic license as a means to generate distance, but no matter how much they claim that their works are ‘novels’, rather than eye-witness testimony, their effect on the reader derives from a tacit pact: they attempt to show what really goes on in the writer’s mind, without metaphysical ethical boundaries or concern for liberal principles of decorum, and the reader reads in a suspension of judgement. Perhaps they believe that such a thorough clarification of intentions will ultimately exonerate them from any harm caused, regardless of actual consequences.

Just before the novel wraps around itself, ‘Elsken’, Espedal receives an ominous summons to the police-station, and long before his interrogation has begun, we read of how he falls to pieces scouring his memory for the potential crimes he may have committed, given that ‘deep in us all there exists a crime.’ (p71) What he will be accused of is a rape, the time of which Espedal projects back seven years. But where the interrogation ends ambiguously, questioning the motives of the accusee, in what is perhaps the only pathetic moment in the novel, the dropped case persists in real life through trial by media, and Norwegian journalists have, apparently, tracked down those involved. Disturbingly, the alleged rape was said to have taken place a year back, around about the same time that Espedal's narrator resolved to give himself one year left to live*. By pursuing this story, the press get to subject a known artist to ethical condemnation, which is something everyone can get involved in, and, as a byproduct, they reduce literary works to a crude formula—as a means to excuse the wrong-doing in a life. Should only the innocent throw stones? Who benefits from being innocent until proven guilty in a court of law? In as much as everyone might benefit from the latter, it is impossible to remain impartial, regardless of whether we consider ourselves innocent or not. In the final sequence, much hinges on the meaning of the shared Danish-Norwegian word ‘angre’, which can mean both ‘repent’ and ‘regret’ in English. For my part, I would prefer not to.

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